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Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity

Lewis Wallace
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

South End Press, 2007

This book gave me a stomachache. For about 50 pages, I almost believed the man was making powerful connections for me. And then I kept reading.

Jensen, who is a white male academic and the author of the recent book The Heart of Whiteness begins by placing pornography in the context of patriarchy, racism and systemic violence. Jensen honors the feminist tradition of connecting the personal to the political with vulnerable stories of his attempts at being an “alpha-male” and his reflections on his life as a man in a woman-hating culture. He implores other men to stop struggling to be “King of the Hill” and let go of their dominance, crediting feminist women such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin as inspirations. He critiques patterns of violence and imbalance in heterosexual relationships and sexualities. And then, Jensen descends into the worst of the worst of anti-porn, anti-sex criticism.

Getting Off proports to focus on the “commercial heterosexual pornography industry,” but proceeds to make sweeping statements and tough indictments of all pornography and of “the pornographers,” as Jensen frequently calls porn producers. The middle section, entitled “Pornography” expends a significant word count recounting scenes from mainstream porn featuring acts such as double penetration and anal sex, as well as verbal abuse and some physical pressure. He quotes the women acting out fantasies that he sees as degrading, and points out the reflection of mainstream misogyny in the films, imploring men to “look in the mirror.”

As Jensen buries himself in rhetoric claiming that he does not want to control or objectify women, nor to judge them based on their external traits, he definitively states that “most women do not seek out” anal sex or double penetration (vaginal and anal sex at the same time), among other sex acts he proceeds to explain with palpable disgust. He accuses female porn performers of “saying they enjoy” certain sex acts. At one point he even hints that female ejaculation may or may not be real (ouch). Jensen successfully manages to use his “pro-feminist” pages to insert subtle hatred toward women’s sexuality that rivals the hatred of the worst, most woman-hating porn producers. Same demon, different disguise. I wonder if Jensen needs his own long look in the mirror.

He also doesn’t mince words regarding male sexuality. According to Jensen, “men typically consume pornography specifically to avoid love and affection” (one of many assumptions he draws based on limited objective information) and, to quote one of his chapter titles, “We are what we masturbate to.”

Transsexual menace

Here are some questions Jensen might have taken on, but doesn’t: Why do so many men fantasize about power play? What about when women want to play with power? What is the role of sexual repression in encouraging a misogynistic porn industry to thrive? What about consensual fantasy and BDSM as valid aspects of healthy sexuality? How does anti-porn activism affect queer and feminist pornographers and feed into conservative movements against us? As he critiques the misogynistic ways that women are depicted as “sluts” and “whores,” Jensen also implies his belief that women who would want to engage in certain sex acts are “sluts” and “whores”—and offers no critique of why those words should have a negative connotation. Jensen’s criticisms of an exploitative industry fall short in the absence of a critical look at sexuality itself as a natural and varied part of human experience.

A chapter towards the end addresses what the purpose of sexuality itself might be—a pretty daring question to explore, if not a wise one. Jensen takes issue with the idea that “sexual acts can be detached from a real person” or that physical pleasure could be the thing that matters about sex, claiming that these ideas feed into patriarchy. He also concedes “there are psychoanalytic theories about fetishes” that he finds too complicated to comprehend, and anyhow, he finds “something sad about it.” The sex educator in me is completely through with Robert Jensen at this point, though the feminist boy may still be willing to listen.

In conclusion, Getting Off suggests working for an end to masculinity and to male identity entirely—a clever idea, if only he had managed to mention even once the transgender activists and gender justice movements who have long been developing nuanced analyses of masculinity, men, and the concept of an “end of gender”. It never ceases to amaze me how so many people who study gender still manage to avoid the “transsexual menace” in their writing and analysis.

Jensen is a clever writer and his book is an easy read with some shining moments. He speaks lucidly about the deep interest men have in undoing a system that dehumanizes them by making them into well-trained oppressors in ways that can extend into the intimate and sexual. He attempts a look at racism in pornography, an aspect of the debate many shy away from. In a favorite tangent of mine towards the end, he suggests that perhaps “patriarchy is not a successful adaptation in evolutionary terms and will lead to the extinction of the species.” That’s pretty juicy stuff.

Still, I couldn’t help but question what, after years of women’s debate on the issue, this particular book taking down pornography has to offer that is different and new? Is it just another case of a member of a privileged group capitalizing on an oppressed group’s struggle? For all his talk about ending manhood, is Jensen’s own manhood the whole reason this book matters? My transgender shoulders shudder to think.